In the midst of this seemingly endless collapse of the American middle-class, it is worth looking back to great films that continue to inspire us to become better than seems possible. A case in point is King Vidor’s The Crowd, released in 1928 as one of the last great American silent films. Every fall, as I teach a student success course at Southern Illinois University, I show the students the film to put into perspective the limitations of our definition of success via that old saw, the American Dream.
The Crowd begins on July 4th, 1900, as a parade celebrates the new dawn of what Henry Luce would call the American century. While the festivities take place out on the street, Mr. Sims revels in the birth of his son, Johnny, whom he declares will be as great as Washington and Jefferson. Within five minutes, the American Dream collapses around Johnny. As a young boy playing outside with his friends, he watches an ambulance race up to the front door of his house. In one of the great shots in American film history, Johnny skulks up the staircase, coming to learn that his father has died of a heart attack. Johnny emerges out of the crowd; as his despair crescendos atop the stairs, the vanishing point of the image reveals an uncaring crowd in the background, solely there to gawk, unwilling and unable to empathize with the boy’s unendurable pain.
Immediately after, the film cuts to a young adult Johnny Sims, taking the ferry into New York City. He tells his fellow commuter that he intends to make something of himself to make his father proud. The man shrugs his shoulders, unable or unwilling to correct the delusional young man. The film, on the other hand, has expressive irony at the ready. We follow the chaotic life of the millions of denizens of the city to a massive skyscraper; the camera ascends the walls and settles into one window high atop the edifice. Inside, a room full of actuaries compile huge arrays of numbers, one of whom is Worker 137: Johnny Sims has been reduced to yet another number, smothered in anonymity.
However, the dynamics of melodrama rescue Johnny from the brink of despair. After work, on a date at Coney Island, the young man falls in love with Mary. They soon get married and have two children. More time elapses, and we witness the drudgery of child rearing. At the beach, the young children throw sand all over the couple’s lunch, frustrating Johnny to no end. Yes amidst the chaos, Johnny sketches an advertising campaign on a scrap of paper. Upon returning home, Johnny enters his creative work into a contest. To his great surprise, he wins a $500 prize. With his winnings, he buys his children toys that heretofore he could not afford. Dangling the items out the window, Johnny unknowingly lures his children into great danger. Shockingly, one of Johnny’s daughters gets run over by a truck and dies.
The family collapses under the trauma of the loss. Johnny turns to drink and despair, forcing Mary to take her remaining daughter and move out. In the film’s last moments, Johnny makes one desperate last attempt to reclaim his family, promising Mary that he will again become the man he once was. Taking pity on him, Mary agrees to attend a vaudeville show with him. Sitting in a massive theatre with thousands of other patrons, Johnny begins talking with the man sitting next to him. Scanning the program, Johnny points out to the man that the ad he created is printed therein. The man is impressed at Johnny’s talent and pats him on the back. As the film ends, the camera tracks backward to reveal Johnny, Mary and the unnamed man laughing at the nonsense on the stage, individuals who quickly become just part of the crowd, lost in a massive geometric array of movement no longer identifiable as separate entities.
The Crowd is among the most complex films ever made in the United States. It is a film that simultaneously critiques and rescues the American Dream. On the one hand, it suggests Johnny’s father’s uncritical acceptance of the notion that everyone can become Washington and Jefferson is pure nonsense, a horrid burden to put on our young people. On the other hand, it takes quite seriously the notion that Johnny’s creativity in writing one minor ad campaign is that which successfully binds us to our fellow human beings. While Johnny never lived up to his father’s grandiose expectations, he did something even more remarkable, coming back from the brink of despair in order to love and live. The Crowd is a film that speaks to the complexity of the American Dream in our seemingly hopeless world of 2013, as much as it did in 1928, on the brink of collapse into an even worse Depression that our country admirably lived through to thrive again.